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Previewing SXSW 2023

Karen O’Connor, Miri Navasky, and Maeve O’Boyle’s Joan Baez I Am a Noise (2023)

As you read this, musicians, filmmakers, comedians, critics, fans, and techies of all stripes from around the world are descending on Austin in anticipation of this year’s SXSW, which opens tomorrow and runs through March 19. The go-to hub for coverage remains the Austin Chronicle, one of the last great alternative weeklies still standing. This week’s issue—free to read online or to pick up from the stacks in bars, restaurants, and cafes as well as vinyl, book, and vintage clothing stores all around the capital city of the Lone Star State—naturally features a special SXSW supplement.

We’ll get to that, but first, let’s flip back to last week’s issue and Richard Whittaker’s lovely profile of John and Janet Pierson, who “glow a little” when Whittaker suggests that they might be referred to as “indie cinema’s fairy godparents.” The Piersons met in New York in 1981, when they were both working for Film Forum, which is where they married two years later on a bright day in May—at noon, so that they could get the wedding wrapped before the regular two o’clock showing.

Working with such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Michael Moore, Richard Linklater, Rose Troche, Errol Morris, Lizzie Borden, and Kevin Smith on the one hand and adventurous distributors on the other, John Pierson redefined the role of the producer’s rep. In 1995, he wrote an essential book on those crucial years for American independent cinema, Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes, and in 1997, he and Janet created Split Screen, a television series featuring notables along the lines of Wes Anderson, John Waters, and Miranda July. The show ran on IFC until 2001, and you can watch all sixty episodes on the Criterion Channel.

In 2004, after a year spent running what Whittaker calls “the world’s most remote theater” in Fiji, the Piersons arrived in Austin, where John began teaching at the University of Texas and Janet threw herself into work with the Austin Film Society and SXSW. Four years later, Matt Dentler, who had overseen SXSW Film when it was premiering first features by Barry Jenkins, Lynn Shelton, Josh and Benny Safdie, offered Janet his job. “Under her tenure,” writes Whittaker, SXSW has become “a true destination film festival. It’s been the launch pad for surprise box-office smashes like I Love You, Man; A Quiet Place; and 2022 opening night title and Oscar contender Everything Everywhere All at Once. At the same time, it's nurtured an endless roster of new talents and new perspectives.”

Last October, Janet Pierson announced that “fifteen years and fourteen events later, it feels right to hand the reins to the new Director, Film & TV, Claudette Godfrey,” who had been working alongside Pierson—who will remain on board as Director Emeritus—as the festival’s programming director all that while. The 2023 edition retains that SXSW signature mix of boldfaced crowd-pleasers and fresh discoveries.

The opening night film, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a comedic fantasy adventure starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, and Hugh Grant, will premiere at the beautifully restored hundred-year-old Paramount Theatre. In this week’s Chronicle, Matthew Monagle talks with directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, who boarded the project after it had spent years in development. “The one thing that we knew we wanted to preserve was the fact that it was a heist,” says Daley. “We thought that was a really interesting way into a story that people could sink their teeth into without necessarily any knowledge of the fantasy genre.”

Whittaker talks with Lesli Linka Glatter, a filmmaker whose early work in television includes directing four episodes of Twin Peaks for David Lynch, “a mentor who she credited with teaching her the difference between ‘dollar scenes and twenty-five-cent scenes.’” Glatter has now directed all eight episodes of Love & Death, an HBO series based on a real-life murder: “In 1980, suburban Texas everywoman Candy Montgomery (played here by Elizabeth Olsen) was charged with murdering her fellow Methodist congregant Betty Gore (Lily Rabe) with an ax.”

Two of the documentarians Whittaker speaks with are Jeremy Coon, whose A Disturbance in the Force is a what-were-they-thinking dissection of the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, and Alexandre O. Philippe, who probes the mind of William Shatner in You Can Call Me Bill. Another pair of documentaries has just premiered in Berlin. Joan Baez I Am a Noise, codirected by Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle, and Karen O’Connor, “starts out as a fly-on-the-wall view of Baez’s farewell tour and ends as an extended look at family trauma and recovery from mental illness,” writes Chris Willman in Variety.

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney finds that Love to Love You, Donna Summer, directed by Roger Ross Williams with Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano, is “stuffed with great archive material. But it largely squanders an ideal platform through which to reaffirm the subject’s vital place in pop music history and reclaim disco as a genre whose influence has never waned.” Jessica Kiang recently reviewed another Berlin premiere for Sight and Sound: “Scooch over, The Social Network (2010). Budge up, Steve Jobs (2015). Make a little room for rise-and-fall comedy BlackBerry, Canadian actor/writer/director Matt Johnson’s hugely entertaining, boisterously bittersweet addition to the tech-hubris true-story genre.”

The Chronicle’s SXSW package also includes profiles of Ted Geoghegan, whose latest horror movie, Brooklyn 45, conjures the ghosts of the Second World War; Lagueria Davis, the director of Black Barbie: A Documentary; and Dawn Porter, whose The Lady Bird Diaries allows the First Lady to tell her version of what went down between the assassination of JFK and the end of LBJ’s presidency. Over the coming days, we can look forward to Chronicle reviewers’ first responses to such films as Julio Torres’s Problemista, starring Tilda Swinton as an unpredictable artist; Penny Lane’s new documentary, Confessions of a Good Samaritan; and Boots Riley’s I’m a Virgo, a series about a thirteen-foot-tall Black man living in Oakland, California.

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